PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Josh Beckett transformed himself from power pitcher to deceptive hurler after a winless, injury-plagued season ended with surgery.
He still dominates, but in a different way.
Beckett pitched the first no-hitter of his stellar career and the first in the majors this season, leading the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Philadelphia Phillies 6-0 Sunday.
“You don’t think at this point of your career that you’re going to do that,” Beckett said.
Certainly not after a miserable 2013.
Beckett was nearly derailed by a nerve condition that left him unable to feel his fingertips. He even had to learn to hold the steering wheel with his left hand because he couldn’t feel his right hand.
Now he’s healthy and pitching like a guy with three All-Star games, two World Series rings and a World Series MVP award on his resume.
On this day, he was downright nasty.
“For him to be able to do that is nice,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Just for everything that he’s been through with us, the surgery last year, he just seemed to change himself as a pitcher and is using the breaking ball more.”
Beckett stuck out six, walked three and didn’t come close to allowing a hit against a lineup that included two former NL MVPs and four former All-Stars. The 34-year-old right-hander threw 128 pitches. He fanned five-time All-Star Chase Utley on a called strike three to end the game.
Figuring Utley wasn’t expecting a fastball with a no-hitter on the line, Beckett fired a 94 mph heater right down the middle.
“I was trying to think along with him,” Beckett said.
Beckett mixed a sharp fastball with a slow curve that kept hitters off-balance while retiring 23 straight batters in one stretch. He pitched the Dodgers’ first no-hitter since Hideo Nomo beat Colorado at Coors Field in 1996, and the 21st in franchise history. Sandy Koufax threw four.
“I knew he had something special going early,” catcher Drew Butera said. “I was a nervous wreck from the fourth inning on when he said he had never taken one this far. He’s a guy who is going to keep it loose and he didn’t want anybody to be thinking about it.”
Beckett pitched the first no-hitter in the majors since Miami’s Henderson Alvarez did it against Detroit on the final day of the 2013 season.
Beckett also became the first visiting pitcher to throw a no-hitter in Philadelphia since Montreal’s Bill Stoneman stopped the Phillies on April 17, 1969, at Connie Mack Stadium.
All of the defensive plays behind Beckett were routine. Domonic Brown had the hardest out, a liner that left fielder Carl Crawford ran down near the warning track in the fifth.
Beckett sat at the end of the bench, next to a security guard, as the Dodgers batted in the ninth inning, before taking the mound in his bid for history.
“It was awesome. You think about it pretty much from the fourth on. I’m not one of those guys that carried a lot of no-hitters deep into games,” he said.
Beckett’s longest previous bid was 6 2-3 innings before allowing a single to Detroit’s Curtis Granderson on June 3, 2009.
Beckett retired pinch-hitter Tony Gwynn Jr. on a popup to shortstop to start the ninth. Speedy Ben Revere followed with a grounder that first baseman Adrian Gonzalez fielded, and he flipped to Beckett covering the bag for the second out.
“It was the most excited I’ve ever been playing defense,” Gonzalez said.
Jimmy Rollins was up next, and Beckett walked him on a full-count pitch. That brought up Utley, and when the count when to 3-2, Butera went to the mound to talk to Beckett.
“It was what it was, and if I threw one, great. If not, I have healthy kids and a healthy wife, and that’s the main goal,” Beckett said.
A pitch before striking out, Utley took a few steps toward first base when he thought a 3-1 delivery was ball four. Instead, it was strike two.
Utley left the clubhouse before reporters arrived.
“He had real good stuff right down to the final batter,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. “Our best hitter not swinging at the last two strikes is an indicator right there.”
Beckett walked off the mound, pumped his fist and was mobbed by teammates. He got a standing ovation from the crowd of 36,141 at Citizens Bank Park on his way to the dugout.
Beckett gave the policeman he chatted with throughout the game in the dugout one of his bats. The Phillies gave him the pitching rubber before he left the ballpark.
“I’m really touched by that,” Beckett said. “The Phillies showed what a class organization they are by getting that to me.”
Last July, Beckett had a rib removed in thoracic outlet syndrome surgery to fix a condition that was affecting his right arm. He went 0-5 with a 5.19 ERA in eight games in his first full year with the Dodgers following a blockbuster trade with Boston in 2012.
Beckett helped the Red Sox with the 2007 World Series, but fell out of favor with fans before his departure. He was considered the ringleader after reports of players drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games surfaced following the disastrous end to 2011.
Beckett (3-1) started this season on the disabled list with a thumb injury, raising more doubts about how effective he would be for a team with postseason expectations.
“I just wanted to help the team,” he said. “You always want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Beckett was the MVP of the 2003 World Series for the Marlins, capping their championship run by pitching a five-hit shutout in the clinching Game 6 at Yankee Stadium.
Roy Halladay has the only other no-hitter at cozy Citizens Bank Park, doing it for the Phillies in a 4-0 playoff win over Cincinnati on Oct. 6, 2010.
In 1988, Pascual Perez of the Expos held the host Phillies hitless for five innings at Veterans Stadium before the game was stopped because of rain. A Major League Baseball committee later ruled that no-hitters of less than nine innings didn’t officially count.
Beckett walked Utley in the first and Marlon Byrd in the second before retiring 23 straight.
Beckett threw a one-hitter for the Red Sox at Tampa Bay on June 15, 2011. He allowed an infield single to current Phillies utilityman Reid Brignac in the third inning of a 3-0 win.
Phillies righty A.J. Burnett (3-4) allowed four earned runs and 11 hits in seven innings in a matchup against his former Marlins teammate. Burnett is 1-3 with a 6.26 ERA in his last four starts.
“What was good for him today was he was able to throw his changeup and his hook for strikes in fastball counts,” Burnett said.
Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who caught Beckett in Florida, sort of predicted success for Beckett this season.
“When we were in LA, we talked about some things and I said, `Man, this might be your best year because you’re just going out and enjoying it,'” Redmond said.
A no-hitter sure makes it fun.
NOTES: Dodgers SS Hanley Ramirez remained out of the lineup because of a sore calf. … Dodgers CF Matt Kemp, the 2011 NL MVP runner-up, wasn’t in the starting lineup for the third straight game. Mattingly said Kemp will start playing some LF.
AP Sports Writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed to this report.